The U.S. Department of Labor is suing Provo's longest-established pizza restaurant for nearly $65,000 it claims the restaurant owes 100 former employees.
The department says The Brick Oven failed to pay employees minimum wage and operated an illegal tipping pool.Restaurants are allowed to pay up to 40 percent below minimum wage if the difference is made up with tips. In April 1990 the minimum wage rose from $3.35 to $3.80 and then increased to $4.25 in April 1991.
The Brick Oven paid waiters starting wages of $2.31 and other employees (except cooks) $3. It allowed waiters to keep all tips.
The difference in other employees' wages was made up by withholding a percentage from waiters' paychecks, which was then distributed to those employees.
Glee Zumbrennan, owner of The Brick Oven, said employees made more than minimum wage through the tip-sharing pool. The pool allowed a more fair and equal distribution of tips, he said.
But, the Department of Labor contends the pool was illegal, according to S. Lorrie Ray, a staff attorney in Denver.
"I found out by organizing it you've violated the law," Zumbrennan said.
Tipping pools must be voluntarily run and operated by employees, the Department of Labor told Zumbrennan.
Zumbrennan said the Department of Labor's suit is an attempt to scare restaurant owners into complying with new minimum wage standards.
"This is not a minimum-wage dispute," Zumbrennan said. "It is a dispute involving tip-pool sharing."
The dispute began in 1989 when a representative of the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor audited The Brick Oven. The department filed a suit against The Brick Oven on April 1, 1991, 15 months after the audit and the same day the new federal minimum wage rose from $3.80 to $4.25.
According to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court for Utah, Zumbrennan failed to pay minimum wage to 100 employees beginning in 1988. The amount owed employees by The Brick Oven ranges from $11.02 to $1,840.08.
The complaint would require The Brick Oven to pay a total of $64,821.82 in back wages to employees between April 8, 1988, and Dec. 2, 1989, and an additional undetermined amount to be paid to employees between Dec. 2, 1989, and March 31, 1991.
The Brick Oven changed its policy on tipping pools after the suit was filed.
"It has been a nightmare for me. I rise and fall on my reputation in the restaurant business," Zumbrennan said. "Our reputation is that we have a very efficient business."
It was trying to be efficient that Zumbrennan claims caused the problem.
"It's (the new system) downright sloppy, but that's the way it has to be. Whatever happens happens," Zumbrennan said.